Tag Archives: Children’s literature

Aunty’s Bloopers

I’m here today to restore the good name of aunties!

Why do I feel the need to do this? Ah… you may well ask.

Well, something in children’s literature struck me lately. Struck me like a ten tonne truck. And that something is that aunties get rather a bad name in children’s literature. At least they do in the children’s literature I’ve been reading to my nephew over the past six months.

To put this in to context for those of you who don’t know, I am long-term foster carer for my seven year old nephew. He came to live with me four years ago. Previously to this my sister (his other aunt) took him in on a short term fostering basis until the paperwork for me had gone through for permanency. The whys and wherefores of these circumstances are not relevant to this post, but let’s just say, mental illness is a bugger and can have far reaching consequences most of us never really think about.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog post.

I am an aunt who loves my nephew more than anything, and it is a privilege to be able to watch him grow and learn and to be able to bring him up whilst he still maintains a good relationship with at least one of his parents. So yes, I’m a good aunt. Well at least I hope so!

However, recently we’ve read quite a few children’s books together where aunts are cast as the bad guys. The really bad guys.

It started with reading Matilda by Roald Dahl back in the summer.

I remember my nephew wasn’t especially comfortable when, as we read, it turned out that the horrendous headteacher, Miss Trunchbull, was the lovely Miss Honey’s guardian. Miss Honey, it transpires as the book progresses, was bought up by her aunt who was nothing but hostile towards her and even when she is an adult is manipulating and emotionally abusing her niece. In fact my nephew was horrified. “It’s good you’re not a nasty aunt like Miss Trunchbull,” he said. Always nice to be made a comparison with evil characters! But it seemed to play on his mind. I thought nothing much of it and assured him that Miss Trunchbull was just a character made up from imagination, just as the characters he makes up are.

A few months later we were reading James and the Giant Peach. And who does James have to go and live with when he is orphaned? Yes, his two atrocious aunts: Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. Well there my nephew made an immediate connection about there being more nasty aunts in a Dahl novel. We began to wonder if Roald Dahl himself had vicious cruel aunts, and I had to assure my nephew that no, not all aunts are mean. “No, because you’re not,” he said thoughtfully. “You’re nice and kind and loving.” (Yes, he can be that cheesy! 🙂 ) Phew. Not scarred yet then?!

Of course, I thought not much of all this until more recently when we acquired all of David Walliams’ children’s books. We started with Mr Stink and Billionaire Boy, before moving onto Awful Auntie.

 

Well, we do not need to delve too deeply past the title to know that yet again we were to encounter an aunt so truly terrible, she makes the previous three literary aunts,  all rolled into one, seem like Miss Honey. The title character, Aunt Alberta, is responsible for the custody of her niece, Stella, when she is orphaned. Now, okay, it’s probably natural that the horrible aunt character would be used, as I would imagine Dahl’s books are so ingrained in British psyche – characters such as Miss Trunchbull and the aunts in James and the Giant Peach  – that it may be a natural route for an author to take.

But then the other night I started reading A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig.

 

Now everyone who follows me on Twitter will know I love (with a capital L)  Matt Haig’s writing. I think he writes with great insight into the human mind and can make just one line within a story tell a whole human truth. So to be clear this post is not an author bashing of Haig, Walliams or Dahl  because to me they all write wonderful stories and are all geniuses in their field. I  aspire to write as well as they, though I’m a long way off that yet!

Gushing ramble aside, I felt my heart sink and a loud sigh did emit from my lungs at around Chapter 3, when it is announced Nikolas’ aunt will be coming to ‘look after him’ whilst his father is away for three months. And of course Aunt Carlota turns out to be a Grade A bitch of an aunt who the young Niklolas is subsequently mistreated by. I know as a writer why this is the case. Why she is so wicked and cruel; there has to be an inciting incident for what’s to come next for our hero, and his aunt being the equivalent to the wicked witch of the west is just that. My sigh wasn’t for that, no. I understood this perfectly. My sigh was more for the fact of thinking – “oh no, not ANOTHER cruel, malicious, abusive aunt in a story that I want to read to my little boy! This is doing the aunt stereotype no favours at all!” I mean when he gets to his teenage years I’ll be labelled mean, cruel and told I’m hated as it is. That’s natural. All parents are. But when you have the added thing that you’re not actually their parent and then all aunties he reads about in books are cowbags, well I can see me being in for a tough time come six years time or so!

Reading this latest bad aunty character got me wondering about why Aunt Carlota/Miss Trunchbull/Aunt’s Sponge and Spiker couldn’t have been uncles, or cousins or well…just anyone rather than another aunt. I’m not being sensitive as an aunt, it’s just an observation which has made me curious as to why aunts get such a bad press. And I can’t help but think the wicked stepmother trope of traditional tales seems to have given way to the wicked aunt trope.  I mean not that I know exactly how many awful literary aunts there are out there. I’m possibly not as widely read as I should be. Maybe there are just as many unscrupulous uncles adorning our children’s bookshelves as there are aunts. It’s only I personally haven’t come across any.  To add to these though, I got to thinking of other children’s books I’ve read. For example I read recently a book by a new author, Susan McNally. In her “Morrow Secrets” trilogy it is Great Aunt Agatha, a tyrannical matriarch, who holds power over, not only her great niece, but all the other women in the family too.  Then, even in the mighty Harry Potter stories, it is Harry’s maternal aunt, Petunia, who he has to go and live with and is mistreated by (albeit it equally with Uncle Vernon and dastardly Dudley) throughout his childhood. (The uncle and cousin are incidental though I feel really, as it is the blood relative, the aunt, who is the reason he is in that family in the first place.)

So now I’ve  been trying to scour the recesses of my childhood book memories (and the internet) to find a balance. To find equally evil uncles and examples of awesome aunts who look after children once their parents have left the scene for whatever reason. So far I’ve come up with Lemony Snickett Series of Unfortunate Events books. I’ve not read them, but Wikipedia leads me to believe the orphaned children are sent to live with a dreadful distant male relative who then tries to steal their fortune. Amongst other despicable deeds. Oh and of course there’s the wicked ‘uncle’ in Aladdin.

But that’s all I’ve come up with. Grandparents (with the exception of the Grandma in George’s Marvellous Medicine) always seem to come off well. Kindly, caring, wise, gentle. But aunts? Hmmmm. I’ve yet to come across a nice kindly one in literature yet. At least in the children’s literature I’m reading to my 7 year old nephew.

So I haven’t read A Boy Called Christmas to him yet. In a way I am glad I started it without him. I think he may well begin to wonder about me! He might start to think I’m going to steal from him, or lock him cellars or make him sleep outside!

No, not really! I’m not really concerned that my nephew may  get a complex about how abominable aunts are. Simply because I am an amazing aunt, (‘amazing’ used for alliterative purposes not because I’m a big-headed arse!) who looks after him well and loves him unconditionally! As is my sister an awesome aunt to him too. Also I know so many other wonderful aunts who all go out of their way for their nieces and nephews all the time in fantastic ways. Yes, kids I’m here to tell you not all aunties are bloopers! Some of us are good people who don’t feed children rotten turnips or bandage them up and lock them in rooms!

I’m just curious as to why the awful aunty character seems to pop up quite a lot…And this is where you come in, my lovely readers.

Is there a slightly cultural bias thing going on? I mean uncles are generally seen as cool and fun. (or at least portrayed that way?) Aunts possibly more serious and ‘old’. (That might just be me though as all my brothers are younger and so as uncles to nephews always going to be cooler than older aunts – maybe!) But I also can’t help but think there’s that element of being a bachelor is seen as positive thing whilst being a spinster is seen as negative tied in somehow with this too. Maybe its the fact aunts are so great in reality that writers can play around with them and make them atrocious!

Cultural stereotypes are always very interesting, but this is one I hadn’t even considered this one before this year.

Of course, as always, this is a bit of me rambling and throwing down my initial brain gunk out into the ether, but I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

Can you think of any examples in kid’s literature (especially the middle grade sort of age range), whereby aunts are portrayed in a more positive light. Or perhaps where uncles are not? (I’ve just brought to mind Uncle Andrew in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. He wasn’t that great I vaguely seem to recall.)

Anyway, over to you folks. Let me know your thoughts. 🙂

Cheers!

 

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An Original is Always Worth More Than a Copy?

Do any of us have a truly original idea when it comes to writing? Does it even matter much if we don’t?

I have been asking myself this question for a while now as I recently started to analyse my literary influences and began to draw parallels with books I have loved. Then last week it hit me like a ten ton truck where my main inspiration had probably come from and I hadn’t even properly realised it.

The truth is I have recently rediscovered the amazing epic The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. This happened just the other day when my 5-year-old nephew saw the DVDs on my book (and DVD) shelf and asked to watch one. This was simply because he has seen adverts on the TV for Lord Of The Rings Lego. Not because he has read the books! Such is the power of advertising on the young. And so we settled down one Sunday afternoon and watched The Fellowship of the Ring. (Well actually we watched half of it. He is five. His attention span will not stretch yet, if ever, to nearly 3 and a half hours.)

Anyhow, re-watching this epic for the first time in a few years (and afterwards secretly watching the DVD extras!) I suddenly realised what an influence these books and films had on my own book. Not consciously. I am not entirely sure I actually write anything consciously. I certainly do not have ideas whilst actively thinking!

But so many parallels sprang to mind as I sat and watched it, I realised I have a real love of the story and an admiration of an author who so meticulously created a whole world, a whole history and a whole language just from his imagination.

Now by sheer coincidence, I grew up in the same place as Tolkien, (rather than being some long-lost relative of his!) although of course the landscape Tolkien grew up in during the 1890’s would have been very different to the landscape I found myself in during the 1980’s. Tolkien grew up in what was then the village of Sarehole, in Warwickshire, England. At that time Sarehole had not been swallowed up by the sprawl of the expanding suburbs of the city of Birmingham and it is Sarehole which is thought to have been Tolkien’s inspiration for Hobbiton.

Sarehole Mill around 1900 when as Tolkien would have known it.

An ariel view of the area which was Sarehole village as I know it. Now part of the Hall Green suburb of Birmingham. The playing fields I was taken to every Wednesday are to the left of the road.

My school playing fields were actually directly opposite Sarehole Mill which lies not far from the house where Tolkien lived as a child. Little did I know, as I was taken by bus weekly to the torture chamber, (Physical education – especially in the wet and cold – was never my favourite subject at school) that I was walking, quite literally, in Tolkien’s footsteps. Sarehole, as it was, has now been swallowed up and is part of another busy suburb of Britain’s second city and would be unrecognisable to Tolkien. One unspoiled place though  is Moseley Bog. I used to pass by Moseley Bog (thought to be the influence for the old forest on the outskirts of The Shire where the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil in Book 1)  frequently, as I lived just down the road from there during my childhood. But it wasn’t until the films came out when I was 26 years old that I was even aware of the fact I lived and grew up in the same places Tolkien had stepped. I certainly had no idea that the area I grew up in had influenced so much of the setting and some of the ideas in one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written.

Moseley Bog: Said to be the inspiration for The Dark Wood in Tolkien’s The Lord Of the Rings.

This is, of course, all completely incidental and coincidental and has nothing to do with how the stories have influenced my writing. But there are many parallels between my work (in progress) and Tolkien’s aside from the genre of fantasy adventure. Parallels which I did not consciously intend when I started writing.

Firstly my story, Prophecy of Innocence, begins at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Trees are being torn up to make way for railways and canals and human progress. As I watched the trees being wrenched out of the ground at Isengard under Saruman’s orders in The Lord of The Rings, I couldn’t help but see the parallel. Tolkien himself is cited as saying the Industrialisation of England was influential  to this part of his story. Perhaps growing up in the same place, the heavily industrialised city of Birmingham, albeit one hundred years apart, sowed an  inevitable seed there would be a common historical theme.

In my story  I have elflings as my main characters. This was not my original intention, but I needed some form of being which had some human characteristics to live beneath the ground but have lifestyles and values in complete contrast to that of the worst part of human beings. I didn’t want elves.  Elves have been done. By Tolkien and others. But I preferred them to the idea of fairies (too female gender biased I thought) and dwarves are, in mythological terms and in Tolkien’s world, too materialistic and warrior like. So, as my particular brand of elves are as small as a human thumb, I named them elflings. I suppose a little like a small tree is called a sapling. Nevertheless my elflings are peaceful, serene beings who, like Tolkien’s elves have the power to be immortal, although mine choose not to be.

Like in Tolkien’s story, all that comes to pass in Prophecy of Innocence is the result of something happening in the long forgotten mists of time. There is a sense of history in my book as I studied history for my undergraduate degree and it has always been my favourite subject. The past is interesting to me in that it has shaped what is happening now. So it is hardly surprising that this is one of the main themes running through  Prophecy of Innocence: that is how actions have far-reaching effects through history. My story is historical and ancient in many ways, just as The Lord of The Rings is. Tolkien based the Rohirrim and the people of Rohan very much on Anglo-Saxon lines. I see my elflings as a race who are very Anglo-Saxon/ medieval or even Celtic in dress and manner although their history goes back further than any of these times. They have an ancient history and folklore despite living in the industrial 18th century. Progress above the ground has not touched them as it has humans.

Of course another main parallel is the fact that my story is essentially a quest story. A quest for the elflings to find the Innocents of which their ancient Prophecy speaks. In my story, the elflings, like the men, hobbits, elves and dwarves in The Lord Of The Rings also have to fight to defend their homeland and they have to go on a journey. As at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, the main group of characters in my book  are also forced to split up into different groups and their separate endeavors have to work to a common outcome. The action in my book swaps between different groups of elflings and different places just as it swaps between different groups of characters and settings in The Lord of the Rings.

Another minor parallel is that there is an object at the centre of each story. A ring of power in Tolkien’s case and a casket containing The Prophecy in mine. Both of which are shrouded in ancient legend and mystery.

Finally, now I have begun work on book two, I have already noticed yet another similarity. Again it is completely unintentional, nevertheless comparisons are bound to be made. The second of the books is subtitled Two Tribes. (I could go the whole hog and call it The Two Tribes but that is not right for the book.) The similarity here is not just in its name as the overall plot of Book 2 has far more in common with the Two Towers than its mere title. In The Two Towers we see the huge battle at Helm’s Deep between Saruman’s army and the Peoples of Middle Earth taking place. And so it is with Prophecy of Innocence: Two Tribes. The second book is where everything becomes much darker, much more sinister, than the first and heralds the dawning of a darker era for the elflings, where they have no choice but to fight a war.

So is Prophecy of Innocence a complete rip off of Lord of the Rings? No! Not at all. But inevitably when you write there are influences which subtly find their way into your work without you even realising it. When I read the Harry Potter books I thought J.K Rowling must have been influenced by Tolkien’s stories too. Either that or she simply had the exact  same cultural, historical and literacy influences to him

Furthermore, my writing is very different to Tolkien’s in style. I do not spend pages and pages describing settings for a start.  Children these days do not have the patience for it!  Furthermore, I would not know where to start creating a language from scratch and, unlike Tolkien, I have simply created a sub-world or under-world to our own rather than a completely new world of my own. Perhaps this has more in common with Rowling than Tolkien, who of course I have been influenced by too, but I would say more with the style of my writing than the story itself.

Do any of us who write ever have a truly original idea for stories or do we simply write our own versions of the stories  we love? Even Tolkien drew his influences from Anglo-Saxon literature such as that of Beowulf, so perhaps it is a completely natural process to take ideas from those things which have held your attention in the past. After all it gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself totally in something which you love and recreate something in a new form for the next generation. To me, this can be no bad thing. I already know that some of the ideas I have for plots for the final 2 books in my trilogy will naturally draw more parallels, with not only Tolkien’s work, but with others already mentioned in my previous blog post “To Write one must Read?”. There is plenty enough about my story however which is original. I have simply paid homage to some of the elements which have infiltrated my cultural subconscious over the years. As I believe we all do during the creative process.

No one would ever hold up Tolkien’s work as unoriginal. I hope my work never will be either but instead that it will find its own place in literary history.

Thanks for reading.

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It’s Different for Girls (Updated Post)

Warning: This blog post contains massive sweeping generalisations with regard to gender so I expect backlash.  

Controversial statement coming up…

Males and females of the human species differ from each other.

Okay, so it’s not THAT controversial a statement, but as society seems to be preoccupied with gender equality, it can sometimes feel as though we have forgotten this fundamental fact of life. And it is with this thought in mind I bring you to today’s blog.

Recently I have been quibbling with myself over whether my children’s fantasy book, Prophecy of Innocence, will appeal more to girls or boys or will it be equally appealing (or abhorrent!) to children of both genders.

The question of gender equality rears its head on a daily basis for me as a teacher.  Lately it has become the subject of ‘learning walks’  and teaching methods expected to adapt as a result. Debate rages about why girls are under-performing in maths compared to boys and why boys are under-performing in Literacy compared to girls. I don’t have any definitive answers to this, (though I have my somewhat left field theories) and I’ll not explore this here because: ,

a) the question is too broad & I’m not writing an education based blog,

b) the answer depends on individuals and

c) I’m writing a blog not a dissertation so I will just leave you to dwell on what you think about that for yourselves.

Instead I’ll leave this mystery for my managers to unravel for me. However,  I will say this: I think we should stop ignoring the fact the genders are different and (another massive controversial statement ahoy) stop trying to make girls and boys the same, because whether we like it or not, males and females of the human species are not cut from the same cloth, no matter what gender stereotyping we subject them to or keep  hidden from them.

So, back to my original thought on whether Prophecy of Innocence will appeal overall more to one gender or the other. I can honestly say I do not know for certain yet. However, my little pupil beta readers so far are coming back pretty even on the enjoyment factor in terms of gender of readers.

As some background, I  have no qualms in admitting I am not a conventionally ‘girly’ girl.  I do not particularly enjoy romance novels or ‘Rom Com’ films and my favourite books and films err on the side of the male dominated realms of fantasy, adventure, crime, historical epics and comic book superheroes. (My best female friend calls them ‘brown’ films and books!) So when I began writing Prophecy of Innocence it was with these influences I set off. However, despite these influences, I am a woman and so I think like a woman and therefore I probably write like a woman. In other words, when  reflecting on my writing, I have found I have delved far more into the psychology and the humanity of the characters than perhaps, arguably, is necessary for a children’s fantasy adventure story.

As I believe the fantasy adventure genre is quite a male dominated genre… ( I warned you  I would make sweeping generalisations regarding gender, but these are what they are – generalisations and I know the ‘rules’ don’t apply to all.) Anyway the fact that fantasy adventure seems to be dominated largely by my male counterparts  has caused me some  concern with my writing. I remember, as I wrote the first draft, specifically thinking: “I need more action. I need a battle scene; perhaps some death, because otherwise this won’t appeal to boys.” (I spend a lot of time planning lessons for my pupils in this way too – minus the battle scenes and death.) In general I find I consciously think more about what will appeal to boys  than I consciously think about what might appeal to girls. I wonder if  this is because I am not male and so have to try harder to think like one.  When I am not consciously thinking about it,  I believe my natural writing style inclines more towards  female readers.

So with this in mind what I think I have ended up with is essentially a story for children rather than either for boys or girls. At least I hope. A balance of both. I think parts of it will appeal more to boys, some parts more to girls. This I don’t think is a bad thing, but would I be criticised for not stopping to think about the issue of gender appeal in the first place?  I know Book 2 will appeal more to boys because this is where they will get their battles and wars, but for now Book 1 is a story about how those come about.  I didn’t embark on the journey with a specific target gender in mind. But the more I write, the more the question has come to mind. Who will this appeal to? Should I have considered the question more when I started? Did C.S Lewis think about it when he wrote the Narnia stories? Did Tolkien think of it when writing Lord of the Rings? Did JK Rowling consider the issue when she wrote Harry Potter?

I have now started questioning the issue of gender appeal related to children’s literature even further. I would go as far as to say I believe there is a gap in the UK market for fantasy adventure stories written for girls  but is this because  girls are largely not a fan of the genre rather than there are no books out there for them? I see solely from the girls I teach that they like, for example, Jacqueline Wilson’s books. Girls, I have found, appear to like stories related to real life; stories about relationships and their effects. As it seems do women. (Yes I know this is not true of all.)  Boys, on the other hand, seem to enjoy escaping real life a bit more. Not just in books but through their play. They seem to prefer action and adventure more too. On further researching this, most of the blogs and books I have come across in the MG fantasy genre are also, it seems, written by men. I feel quite alone in the writing community writing fantasy adventure for the 9-11 age bracket in the UK. And from what I read on male author’s blogs and in their books is that they write action, battles, danger, magic, monsters. Stuff which appeals to boys. I wonder perhaps that male authors might not need to  consciously think about writing these things as much as I do simply because they are male and these subjects are inherent to their psychology?

I have many more thoughts on the issues surrounding the question of gender appeal in YA and children’s literature but I would like to hear what others think.  Should this issue of gender appeal in children’s books even matter? Art is subjective after all and literature is just one form of art. Surely we enjoy what we enjoy regardless of our gender?  Or do we? Do the rules not apply in the case of literature or if you happen to be under a certain age? I know I certainly don’t fit the stereotype I’m putting forth here.

Since originally writing this post I have now actually come across a contemporary fantasy adventure MG novel series written by a female author from the UK. Having read it, it felt very much as though girls would enjoy it more as the main protagonist is a girl and most of the main characters are female and it just has a more ‘girly’ feel to it all round. Personally it didn’t appeal to me, although a sound enough story and well enough written, I actually found the main protagonist quite annoying, dare I say.  I’m reading another book at the moment with a female protagonist who I’m finding rather irritating although I’m loving the novel itself so I can forgive the fact I’m not keen on her! Strangely I find my own main female character in Prophecy equally annoying and difficult to write.

Thus, I have had a sudden epiphany with regards to my writing:

I have concluded…drum roll please… I perhaps need to work on being a better writer of female characters.

I will not dwell on what this conclusion says about me personally.

Thanks as always for reading. The longest journey in writing history continues.

(P.S: Women: feel free to bash me with feminist views in the comments box below. I probably deserve it.)

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